4 Ways to Turn Your Mistakes on Their Heads

December 13, 2016, 4:30 PM UTC
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The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “How can you bounce back after making a major mistake?” is written by Matthew Swift, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Concordia.

I was in my late twenties co-running Concordia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that I had co-founded just a few years earlier with my best friend, and I was pitching one of the world’s largest banks. If I was successful, my organization would receive much needed support that would be critical to keeping this eager startup afloat.

While I was focused on selling the presentation and impressing the distinguished team of bankers on how their contributions could help my mission of creating public-private partnerships for social impact, I was interrupted by the head of the team. He commented on a spelling error in the slide I was presenting. I was mortified and struggled through the rest of the presentation. I was so focused on making a big impression that I had missed out on an important detail, which threw me off balance and called my credibility into question.

As someone who quickly found himself taking on a leadership role, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in getting this growing organization to where it is today. Through it all, I credit much of our success to the ability to bounce back and learn from our early mistakes.

So how can you turn mistakes into opportunities in your career and return even stronger than you were before? The following practices are four pieces of guidance that I have lived by:

Take a deep breath

We all make mistakes, and in most instances, they are easily fixable with the right approach and attitude. The worst thing you can do is let the mistake get the best of you and blow the issue out of proportion. You may have a tendency to get defensive, lose your temper, freeze up, or lose all confidence. Instead, take a moment to acknowledge the mistake and think rationally about the best courses to remedy it before taking any action.

Acknowledge your mistakes immediately

Accept that you are human and mistakes happen, but understand that it is imperative to be proactive in correcting yourself. If you right your wrongs before others have to, you’ll be amazed how understanding people can be. Being your own toughest critic and holding yourself accountable for any mishaps helps shift the focus away from mistakes themselves and toward your plan to move forward. If you wait to admit a mistake or deny it, there is a good chance you will lose credibility and turn the situation into something much worse than it needs to be.


Write your mistakes down

I keep a running list of every mistake I’ve made and review it occasionally. This may sound depressing, but tracking mistakes and your response to them can be motivating and even humorous. Many find it empowering to view in retrospect the mishaps they’ve successfully overcome. Even if you don’t physically write them down, be sure to take mental note of what happened so you can learn from it. Otherwise, if you dismiss it, there is a good chance you’ll let it happen again.

Share your mistakes with others

Being ashamed of your mistakes doesn’t allow you to properly heal and grow from them. Own them and see them as part of your journey, and take the opportunity to talk about them with others. Getting another perspective can help you think through a different approach you might take in the future. And sharing your experiences with others can help them avoid finding themselves in the same situation.

Whether it’s having typos called out by potential funders, or sending a formal invitation to the CEO of UPS via FedEx (another unfortunate misstep I won’t soon forget), it’s important to remember that we all make mistakes. In your search for success in life, you will undoubtedly be humbled, knocked down, and told “no” repeatedly. Many times, these experiences will arise as a result of the mistakes you make. Your ability to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, address your mistakes swiftly and appropriately, and continue going about your business with confidence will determine the ultimate impact of your errors.

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